PHOTOS: Former Progressive Conservative premier Jim Prentice and interim PC leader Ric McIver, back in 2015. Both men, one could argue, found math could be hard. Below: NDP Premier Rachel Notley and PC premier Ralph Klein.

“There’s no such thing as a free ride to school on a bus.”
— Progressive Conservative interim Leader Ric McIver

In the wake of Thursday’s Throne Speech, wherein Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP Government let it be known it’s about to eliminate mandatory school fees for instructional materials and drop bus fees for students who have no other way to get to their designated school, the soon-to-depart leader of our former ruling Conservative dynasty objected sharply.

With his undeniably accurate observation that “there’s no such thing as a free ride to school on a bus,” interim Progressive Conservative Leader Ric McIver – who will be replaced in two weeks, presumably by someone named Jason Kenney who sees the world much the same way – illustrated there really is a difference between market fundamentalists and the rest of us.

So that bus ride for children whose parents would otherwise have to pay significant money to get them to school, Mr. McIver mansplained to the media, “that’s going to have to be paid for!”

“The government doesn’t think Albertans are smart enough to figure that out,” he huffed, almost certainly incorrectly, going on to accuse the government of trying to bribe the same taxpayers with their own money.

Since Ms. Notley scored an effective point against the late Jim Prentice, then the PC premier of Alberta, in the 2015 televised leaders’ debate, the notion that “math is hard” has become a bit of a recurring theme in Alberta politics – one that any one of us who speaks too quickly, regardless of our arithmetical skill, can fall victim to.

But isn’t Mr. McIver proving here, in a more profound way, that math really is hard for true market fundamentalists who let their rigid neoliberal ideology get in the way of common sense?

Adult Albertans to a man and woman have surely all figured out that someone’s going to pay for those bus rides. The disagreement is not about whether it costs money to operate buses full of school children, but whether that’s a good way to spend our money.

Neoliberals like those that infest the leadership of both the PC Party and the Wildrose purport to believe in user fees – that people who use services should pay for them, and generally the full cost. Taxes, they think, should be as low as conceivably possible and we should all be able to “chose” what services we “want.”

The rest of us – most of mankind, in fact, when you really dig down – believe the old expression that “many hands make light work.”

Accordingly we believe that it makes sense for society to share the costs of essential activities that benefit individuals but also benefit all of society – like education and health care, for two obvious examples.

Just because my kids aren’t in grade school any more doesn’t mean I should stop paying taxes to support primary education, and just because I live conveniently close to a good quality public high school, the one my kids attended, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t share the cost of getting other kids to school.

This is because all of us in society benefit from educating the next generation, not just an elite few.

The fact previous generations got that elementary fact is a big part of why Canada is a desirable country that can have the luxurious first-world problem of arguing about who should be allowed to immigrate here!

By way of another example, it costs about a billion and a half dollars to build a modern full-service hospital for a large metropolitan area.

Not very many of us could come up with that kind of money if we got seriously ill, obviously, which is why it makes sense to pool our resources through our taxes to build such facilities and save many lives.

And it’s why the late premier Ralph Klein’s idiotic decision in 2005 to give away precisely that amount in payments to every Albertan too small to purchase much more than a now-obsolete iPod was the perfect distillation of the kind of thinking Mr. McIver’s commentary proves is still with us.

This is the simple concept the American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes had in mind when he famously observed, “taxes are what we pay for civilized society.”

So-called conservatives like Mr. Klein, Mr. McIver and Mr. Kenney – who nowadays aren’t conservative at all, but espouse a deceptive and radical anti-tax ideology – are quite inconsistent in the application of their market fundamentalist beliefs, of course.

While they believe families who are not particularly well off should have to pay thousands of dollars to get their kids to school if they happen to live at the wrong address, they are perfectly content to squander millions on high public subsidies to elite private schools that charge tens of thousands of dollars per child in tuition.

Like Mr. McIver, we also know that the estimated $100 million we Alberta taxpayers spend every year subsidizing private schools has to come from somewhere. We also disagree about whether it’s a good use of our tax dollars.

Perhaps it’s useful to compare these two sets of circumstances: As a society, do we derive more benefit from ensuring all students get to school at a reasonable cost by subsidizing bus transport, or do we benefit more by giving $20.6 million in subsidies over five years to a single school that charges more than $20,000 a year per child in tuition?

The arithmetic should be obvious, even if it’s not to Mr. McIver, his party and the one it’s thinking about joining up with. Readers will note that both the PCs and the Wildrosers are noisily in favour of tax subsidies for elite private schools. They call it “choice” – that is, choice you and your kids can’t afford.

But pay for transportation for middle class or poor kids who don’t live near a school? They don’t like that so much.

It’s not bribing taxpayers with their own money to pay for the bus rides or the instructional fees. It fulfills an obvious social good.

Paying tax subsidies to expensive elite private schools, by contrast, sounds a lot like bribing someone else with our money!

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  1. “…they are perfectly content to squander millions on high public subsidies to elite private schools that charge tens of thousands per child in tuition.” McIver and Jason show their contempt for the average Albertan.

    And don’t forget the home school crowd.

  2. Even more to the point, Mr. McIver seems to be suggesting that all those rural parents should have to pay to send their kids to school. That will surely cost the PCs their rural support base – oh wait – it’s too late. David made no mention of the Wildrose reaction; maybe Brian Jean was too smart to fall for the NDP trap.

    1. Rural school divisions have the biggest challenges in managing busing costs. For instance, Peace Wapiti school district #76 (which serves the rural areas surrounding the City of Grande Prairie) budgets just over $7 million for Transportation, even though its student body is only a bit more than 5,100 students in all ages; that amounts to $1,271 per student. Meanwhile, Grande Prairie Public School District #2357, which serves only urban students, budgets $2.44 million for Transportation to serve just under 7,000 students, or about $350 per student.

      Shouldn’t rural students have the same access to public education as their urban peers? Should rural families have to pay extra to send their kids to schools that are too far to walk? Don’t conservatives care about their rural base? Or will this move serve to help the NDP’s standing in rural Alberta, which was sorely tested by the inept introduction of Bill 6?

  3. When Kenney, Jean, McIver and others yearn for free-enterprise Alberta, that’s always been code for unfettered capitalism (market fundamentalism if you prefer). Unfettered capitalism leads to the cannibalization of the middle class with the privatization of public services, usually combined with slash and burn policies that impact public sector jobs and affect social programs like education and health care along with reduced assistance for the marginalized and disenfranchised.

    User fees, health care premiums, a sales tax, right-to-work legislation, flat taxes, defunded women’s health options and a host of other conservative measures are in their ideological toolbox. What it all comes down to is social conservatives steadfastly promote “on-your-own” economics. Let’s all hope “back-to-the-future” social conservatism never rears its ugly head ever again in the new Alberta.

    1. pretty true only you forgot to mention, first things which fell under privatization is a profit generating public assets. in sectors like schooling, healthcare so called “entrepreneurs” prefer half baked privatization with warranted base funded by taxpayers and at same time they have been allowed to charge extra.

  4. David C.: On the Alberta Education website under Budget 2016, $248 million is the number given for private school subsidies – :
    “Total operating support for private schools and private Early Childhood Services operators is $248 million.
    About three per cent of the ministry’s total operating budget is directed to support the operations of accredited funded private schools and private ECS operators in the province.”

    I see Progress Alberta is using the $100 million figure. Do you know which is correct?

    I like the map Progress Alberta has published; thanks for the link. It’s great to see what individual private schools have received in public funding and where they are located. Trinity in Cold Lake is near the top of the list for taxpayer subsidies despite having almost all students home-schooled – hmmm.

  5. Anything to disagree with a reasonable policy and stir up their base. On the other hand their belief in charging rural parents for the bus rides their children get from everyone’s taxes may stir up the rural base in an unintended way.

    1. It was a good idea that Lougheed created Alberta Energy and they invested ,partnered in the company developing the Oil sands BUT it was not a good idea to sell our investment in that company. From my understanding how Norway handles private companies makes away more sense. They own a large % of each company ,thus not only making money from the Royalties they collect BUT also making money from their share ownership when shares go up. For a long time new companies entering the oilsand game would take advantage of this same idea , pay little or no Royalties until their investment in building plants was recovered . This also applied to existing companies when they invested in expanding their operations . Now if the Gov`t had used a more equitable plan they could have partnered with the companies and instead of giving away Royalties they could have taken shares in the company to offset the reduced Royalty rate. Companies do not need welfare, they need a good policy from Gov`t and Both WIN. Would it be fair if the Gov`t charged the Oilsand companies for the roads Gov`t built while collecting very lillle in Royalties ? Business and Gov`t have to work together partners and Lougheed was right make an investment for ALL Albertans to WIN. By the way Lougheed also said a WARNING to Oilsand Development DO NOT DO IT TOO FAST a slow steady expansion would have been away more sustainable. But the PC Gov`t under Getty and Klein let the companies develop the Oilsands TOO FAST. Especially when companies could build their plants without paying Royalties Until they recovered their COSTS ! Now I do not know what the deal is , Stelmach made changes and the present Gov`t I gather is trying to sort out this MESS. GOOD LUCK

  6. While I certainly agree that busing should be payed for, different school boards charge different amounts for busing. The CBE(Calgary Board of Education) charges quite a bit more for busing than the Calgary Catholic school board. In fact if you look at the fees charged per students by the CBE they total on average 430 dollars per student to 249 in the Catholic system. If you look further the CBE spends 11316 dollars per student to 10826 in the Catholic system. If all CBE students were educated in the Catholic system it would save taxpayers over 58 million dollars per year. It is obvious to me that some school boards will benefit more than others by the government’s pledge to lower school fees. It is also obvious that while you continue to complain about the money going to private schools that there is some glaring inequalities in the public system.

  7. In 1971, when Imperial Oil sought government financial assistance to mitigate the risk of building Canada’s first two train world scale commercial oil sands mine, extraction plant, and upgrader (when no other oil company would share the risk), Premier Lougheed created Alberta Energy Company and invested Alberta taxpayers’ money as equity partners; 25 years later, when Suncor sought government financial assistance, a former Suncor Executive was Minister of Energy and sold Alberta Energy Company, then, instead of investing Alberta taxpayers’ money as equity partners, the Klein government simply reduced Suncor’s royalty rate to 1 percent until the new capital expansion costs were recovered through increased production.

  8. 2011-12 Revenue Total: $35.6 Billion
    Premiums, Fees and Licenses 3.9%
    Non-Renewable Resource Revenue 23.4%
    Personal Income Tax 24.4%
    TOTAL: 51.7% or $18.6 billion.
    If Non-renewable Resource Revenues were saved and replaced by higher Personal Income Tax then Alberta’s personal income tax revenue would be almost double 47.8% instead of 24.4%. The Personal Income Tax Rate in Norway stands at 38.70 percent. Personal Income Tax Rate in Norway averaged 42.09 percent from 1995 until 2016, reaching an all time high of 47.50 percent in 2000 and a record low of 38.70 percent in 2016. Royalties in Alberta subsidized personal income tax until recently; regardless, it’s instructive to compare the basket of programs and services provided to Norwegians compared to Albertans: no government debt in Norway; and, education is free from pre-school to post graduate university. In Alberta, we have an opposition party that questions the value of full-funding assistance for rural farm families who must send their children to school by bus. Yet, the same party says it supports families, education for children, and sustainability of rural communities.

  9. This nice little lecture from a member of the previous PC government that used oil royalties to subsidize unsustainably low corporate tax rates and a flat tax system that benefited high income earners. Then at the end of the PC regime oil prices started to drop. Well, Albertans actually figured out there was no free ride way before the PC’s did.

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